Julia Jenkins: Get Off Your Butt and, gasp, Off Your Bike

November 9, 2010

Here's something new I've been excited about lately: trail work!

I began doing trail work originally because of the Texas Mountain Bike Racing Association (TMBRA)'s encouragement through a program called Paydirt. When a racer logs 10 documented hours of work on local trails, she gets points towards the championship series, equivalent to a first-place win. This is a big deal: if you're a sport-level (Cat 2) racer, it is likely to make a difference in the top ten finishers in the series; if you're an expert-level (Cat 1) racer, it is absolutely necessary to get your Paydirt points if you want to rank at all (because all your competitors are doing it). This was my original motivator for getting involved - along with another experience I had. Let me tell you a story.

In the spring of 2008, I was working full-time, going to school, racing quite a bit, training 10-15 hours/week, and planning a wedding (okay, it wasn't the fanciest wedding in the world, but it was my very most important one!). At the Double Lake race I ran into (maybe, met for the first time) a woman named Susan, who is half of a company called S&S Trails. She told me I should be volunteering to do some trail work on the trails I ride because, after all, they're only there if people build and maintain them, and who do we think is doing this for us, anyway? She kind of gently scolded me, and she had a good point, but I begged off for the above reasons: I was a little short on time.

But, Susan got me thinking. And in the summer of 2008 I did attend my first "paydirt party" or trail work session, through the Greater Houston Off-Road Bicycling Association (GHORBA). I got my paydirt points in 2008, and 2009, and 2010, and you can bet I'm going to get them in 2011. Ten hours really isn't all that much, spread over 12 months, and I generally go over by a little bit. But, 10 hours is a great start.

In the fall of this year, GHORBA and the Houston Parks Dept. trusted me to "lead" a few paydirt parties. I'm off the bike this season, suffering from some pretty good burnout (don't worry, I'll be back in the spring!) so it's a good time to be involved with trail work. Over the years I've learned a lot by volunteering my time in this way. I know what kind of trail works for mountain biking, but also what works for sustainability in a local environment; I know how much work goes into keeping a trail in good, FUN shape. I know how much damage can be done, for example, by riding trails when they're closed - when the ground is wet we close trails so you don't ride them muddy and cause erosion, and if you do ride them, I can see the results later, and it costs me (and other volunteers) in sweat. Please don't ride closed trails.

Another effect, as perhaps you can see, is that I gain a sense of ownership of any trails I work. Not that I "own" any of this in a property-rights sense, but if I've invested sweat, blood, blisters, free time and sore muscles in trail maintenance and then I see you ride through when the trail is wet, you can bet I'm going to make my feelings known. Trail work invests each of us in the local trail system, and by extension, in trail systems we've never worked, too. When CJ and I traveled to Vermont in the summer of 2009 I really appreciated the enormous amount of work that went into, and goes into, those fabulously designed trails in the Kingdom Trails Network.

A few weeks ago (October 2010), my GHORBA contact, Russell, invited CJ and I to attend a trail-building clinic. I was excited! Again, since I'm off the bike this season, this is a way to be on the trails and in the spirit. It was taught by Ryan and Susan of S&S Trails. Talk about coming full circle: I had seen them at races and whatnot over the years, but this was the most time we'd spent together. I can only imagine what Susan thought of me when I put her off at that race in '08; I've heard too many people tell me, in turn, that they'll give back later. It sometimes feels like the same half dozen of us do an awful lot of the trail maintenance at my home trails at Memorial Park, so I can get cynical, and can only imagine how cynical she might be able to get. But in fact, I was telling the truth! When I had the time I did go do some trail work, and it was rewarding, and I quickly learned to appreciate how important it is. If we don't work on our own trails, we're not going to have any trails. It's that simple.

The clinic was amazing. We spent almost a full day in the classroom discussing the scientific side of trail design. Ryan & Susan have a really cool, sort of all-inclusive philosophy about trails. They're concerned not only with how much fun a trail is for a mountain biker to ride. They think about all the different human user groups - horseback riders, runners, hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers - and how trail design will effect their interactions. They also worry about the sustainability of the trail in terms of water flow, erosion, and environmental conservation, and the effect of trail use on local flora and fauna. They go into their work with an awareness of protected or endangered species and artifacts and all kinds of things I wouldn't have thought of. And they design trails with all these things in mind - as well as how fun a trail is for a mountain biker to ride. All these concerns make for some pretty specific and scientific design elements. They measure inclines (of the terrain as well as the proposed trail) constantly. There are all kinds of things to think about, and it was all fascinating to me, and here's the coolest part: once you learn these rules, they seem like common sense. Everything makes so damn much sense! I love it.

After most of a day in the classroom we went out to a local trail system and did some hands-on design. Ryan and Susan were pretty careful to make us answer our own questions, so we got to apply what they'd been teaching. We got up early the next morning for a full half-day of work, and I tell you, it was some back-breaking work. But you know, it feels really good to do some hard physical labor and then see the results at the end of the day. I left at the end of the weekend with poison ivy, bruises, and sore muscles in whole new places; but I also learned how to properly swing a Pulaski and I felt really good about how I'd spent my time.

I learned a great deal in two days, and of course can't retain all of it, but I did buy the book - that's the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA)'s Trail Solutions. And I'm glad to have spent some quality time with Ryan and Susan and made these connections, because I hope to keep in touch and get to apply more and more of what I've learned, and keep learning. In fact, at the end of the weekend, Susan invited me to do some more work with them in the future, and I hope I hear from her soon. I like doing trail work and what could be better than continuing to learn from the best?

If you ever ride trails - or even if you walk or run them - please consider getting involved in maintenance. (To do this, you can send me an email and I'll help you out; or, you can visit www.ghorba.org and check the forum for your local Houston-area trail for work party dates.) As Russ of GHORBA says, if everybody who uses these trails gave an hour, we'd have plenty of labor to keep things in good shape. The trails don't take care of themselves. This is a fundamental, grassroots kind of giving back to your community. Please be part of taking care of YOUR trails and YOUR world. Thanks Susan for prodding me to do the same.

You can reach me by email here.

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